First, let us define culture vulture. This is the definition that I found in the Urban Dictionary:
1. culture vulture
4 up, 3 down
Someone who steals traits, language and/or fashion from another ethnic or social group in order to create their own identity.
Todd just bought himself a Fubu track suit and changed his name to Tyrone. He is such a culture vulture!
by shaniqua2 sacramento Dec 27, 2006 email it
2. Culture Vulture
12 up, 15 down
A scavenger, circling the media, looking for scraps of originality to add to their conceit. They sport eclectic styles and tastes, always recognisable as having been borrowed without adaption or refinement from elsewhere.
David Bowie is probably the best example of a successful culture vulture.
That website was put together by a Culture Vulture
For those of us into Animal Planet or any Wild Animal Kingdom show, we have seen images of these scavengers.They are often the harbingers of bad things about to happen: a sick, weak, or dying animal. They move in once the animal is dead and don’t mind taking their fill of something that is dead and decaying. Fortunately, the many cultures of the African Diaspora are always re-inventing and re-creating, so that the vultures always have fresh meat to feed off of.
My home girl just brought up this issue up in her blog. Her blog really hits home for me, because I feel as if I just “be.” But I was also a B-girl, a back packer, a houser, and breaker. Ultimately, I don’t have to prove credentials to show how my culture influenced the way I lived my life. Having a young mom, I grew up with music all around me. I was a child born in the mid 70s, and my household was alive with disco, R&B, Funkadelic, Soul, and Hip Hop. James Brown was always playing, as well as George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Earth Wind and Fire, and Marvin Gaye and so many other. My Uncle Booker-T had mad skills spitting game. Rhyming was a way they spit game. And growing up, we knew smooth talking hustlers and artists. I knew rapping from the brothas spitting game, melodic and rythmic. My dad also was a musician and he played the drums and kill some Congos. My mom and aunts used to throw basement parties (you know the kind with the red or blue light). My mom, aunts, uncles, and their friends would wake me and my cousin up to demonstrate our skills. They’d hoot and holla as we worked it out. Yeah, me and my cousin Corey partying with the grown folks. Many of the songs that are remixed today, I grew up with and they are the soundtrack of my life.
But hip hop had a special appeal. As a little kid, I followed my older brother’s footsteps trying to do everything he did. And I remember him sifting through records trying to find the hottest tracks. We shared rooms, and I remember him getting mad at me when I made a mix tape that included scratches. He had the biggest boom box and the freshest gear. Whatever kicks he rocked, I wanted some too. His boys had a brea dancing crew and they used to perform at Great America. In the mea time, I had a crew of other neighborhood rug rats and we’d pull out our cardboard too. My signature finale move was the suicide. Now that I think about it, I was probably really wack. In the early 80s, my brother used to import records from the East Coast. I can even remember getting the latest Roxanne diss album (why was there so many Roxannes), to BDP, Run DMC, and Rakim. I saw the evolution of hip hop to rap, bass music, and knew all the West Coast flavors. Sometimes when we’d travel to New Jersey we’d visit friends and family from New York.
In the early 90s, I was back at it when breaking made its come back. I remember growing up in Cali and my Filipino classmate saying that Filipinos break better than black people. And of course, I was floored. I could never understand how they could beat out in their Honda Civics, but never bob their head. Me, we wer always bobbin, good music always moves me. Another time, I went to a hip hop show and the artists noted I was the only black girl in the crowd. It was eerie… There weren’t any dance crews in the area that seemed black girl friendly. So, it would be me in the garage with my neighbor Levar on some cardboard. But it was kind of hard to pop and lock while everyone stared at my breasts (even though I wore the baggiest clothes and turtle necks).
For years, I lived hip hop. I was that hip hop Muslim girl in the South Bay. I wore my Adidas with dresses and full hijab. From working on college radio, freestyling, writing, even demonstrating to the music production class the old school 808 and 626 beat machines. It was hot with the boom-clap-boom boom boom-clap. But eventually I felt let down by the whole scene and the way it was co-opted. Years later I still feel hip hop and those hold school joints still move me.
As I write, I hear the women of hip hop play in my head (Miss Melody, One of the many Roxannes, McLyte, JJFad,…) Every once in a while I’ll dance. And I have been known to break fools off. But I forego floor manuevers and acrobatics because I’m way too old and am likely to hurt myself.
The discussion of hip hop reminds me of this MTV True Life documentary that had the nerve to air during Black History Month. Half the documentary was about a Latina sorority breaking into the Black stepping world. Even though the young woman’s attitude was emblematic of the ways non-blacks feel about any of our cultural productions, I’m not going to talk about stepping. I’m going to talk about one for of Black music, dance, language, and style–that cultural complex that we know was hip hop. I want to begin my analysis of culture vultures and critique this pattern of mimicking the cultural expression of subaltern groups. I think that they are particularly detrimental because they co-opt of the arts and culture of a dispossessed people. There are people who wish to control the discourse on black music and culture rendering it something that is no longer Black culture, but more of an urban style or something that they can consume.
I have a serious problem with those who wish to divorce the black cultural production of black from its social/political/cutural/economic context. In the name of a trend, they then adopt it as their own. And often they profess to be better at producing given culture better than the members of the original community that created it. Sometimes they even create their own sub-culture, while maintaining their privilege as members of the dominant culture. The culture that they have adopted is more like an accessory, a way of enhancing their individuality because they see their own culture as homogenous and bland.
I’m not really mad at culture vultures. You see, the co-optation of Black culture for various reasons is not anything new. But rather, it is a pattern that is repeated where ever people of the African Diaspora exist: South America, North Africa, the Carribbean, Central America, and even parts of the African continent that is dominated by Europeans or those of Mediterranean descent.
Here is one example of the problems with such forms:
Black South Americans started Tango, which began with the Buenos Aires, Argentina and Uraguay. Oh yeah, you didn’t know there were black people in Argentina.To me that is the biggest historical mystery: what happened to the tens of thousands of Africans? Well, predominately European dominant group co-opted Tango from the black Argentinians before they tried to eliminate the black population and make Argentina the little Europe of South America (by importing Spanish Basques, Italians, and Germans to the country).
My list of other musical and dance forms that began with African slaves or exlaves that have been co-opted by the dominant groups of a given society:
As in Latin America, these cultural forms become national cultures and part of the national pride. The suffering of the people who invented these cultural forms, and the creative ways that they came up with to assert their humanity, find relief, build community, and celebrate life becomes lost. Instead, those who co-opt these expressions often misunderstand the experiences of the people they are imitating.
In a discussion about Jazz, an astute author wrote:
The “white Negroes” of the 1920s projected their own desires onto black Americans, most frequently through music.
In much the same way, individuals who co-opt hip hop project their own desires, insecurities, constructions onto black Americans. There is a strange relationship of power: one of admiration and envy. In their mind, they struggle for authenticity and seek for others to validate their experience of the black sub-culture. Most black people, including myself, are happy that people enjoy our cultural forms. But there are many people of AFrican descent who want to feel as if they have their own culture without it being co-opted and commodified.
So now that I have spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on how these musical forms were so much part of my life and the way I was raised. I want to providea brief timeline of non-black folks imitating and co-oting Black cultural exprssion in North America:
Early 19th century-mid 20th century
Black Face Minstrelsy
Jazz in Black and White
1950s and 1960s
White Blues Artists
Rock n roll
Rock n Roll Timeline
And now Hip hop….
The history of Hip Hop
Davy D’s Short History of Hip Hop
I still have more reflecting to do on this topic. This is by no means comprehensive. And I’m sure that there are many people who will be pissed off by my analysis. I suggest you study some cultural theory, the history of black cultural expression, black history, and then get back at me. Make sure your intellectual game is tight though…
20 thoughts on “Hip Hop and Culture Vultures”
Dude, I remember my older cousin being like “give me a beat Nin”. I was too shy to beatbox but my younger brother would pick it up, though it was more spit than beat. That’s okay though. I remember waking up when my babysitter-older cousin was having a house party. I remember the red light and the 40 ounces and trying not to get in trouble peeking in the hallway in my cartoon flannel pajamas.
Many of your memeories are indeed ones that we all share. We also all share the view from the inside. The one in which we see others coming and taking a part of what’s ours for their own. Worse yet, they don’t leave anything in return. It is not okay that many of the things that are staples of how we define ourselves are now funded and propelled by white men. It’s not okay at all. It’s whack that white men and many jewish men have taken our culture and boxed it and put a wrapper on it and then put it on shelves for us to buy.
What do you think about “culture vultures” in the Muslim community? You know, the ones nasheed rapping, doing spoken word, stealing the cultural dress, language etc.
And some of the women…Oh how they love the music, the culture and of course, the Black men. I see how some of them pirate Black women’s style but they seem to have little respect for Black women or the culture we come from. (But, I digress because that’s another subject).
Whew!! You are about to hurt so feelings girl! You mean the colorful head wraps, ethnic jewelry, “urban”/”hip hop” wear, relocating to gentrified areas that were once formerly predominantly black areas, and whatnot? I have observed this frequently. Some are able to even pass for light skinned black girls without experiencing any of the downsides. I remember my friend complaining about that. I have often scratched my head not quite knowing how to engage with this topic. Surely it this subject needs exploration. Umar Lee has touched upon this topic and so has Tariq Nelson. Culture Vultures exist in all varieties. Another example is Belly Dancing. There are all sorts of white women who exoticize Middle Eastern culture. They are usually WICCAN and have little concern for real issues Arab women have. Or Gwen Stephanie and the B-girl thing combined with her fetishization of Japanese women. Now that’s fricken creepy.
Jamerican Muslimah, Lord your comment created some difficulty with my eyesight for a moment. I’m a rather new Muslimah and the can of worms you just opened left me shaking and speechless. I just don’t know what to say, but I must say that I’ve been highly turned off by this phenomenon. Yes many people in our age bracket don’t just become muslim but they become “black muslims” without being black. Reading your post sent a whole plethora of images and names through my head.
Don’t forget that some of the best-known Black soul music from the 1960s was actually written by white songwriters – Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller. A lot of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ early stuff was produced by George Clinton, one of Rick James’ early bands (the Mynah Birds) had Neil Young on guitar, and funk has even influenced folkish artists like Jack Johnson and Ani Difranco. Not to mention the fact that black musicians played the same instruments as white musicians.
The same story is true over here – white musicians took on an awful lot of influences from Carribean immigrant music like ska and reggae. There were a lot of white ska bands around in the early 1980s like Madness and the Specials. Ireland didn’t get many such immigrants, so their music is still very folky – the Pogues, Saw Doctors, Hothouse Flowers and Cranberries being among the best-known. It’s kind of our country music without a lot of the reactionary politics associated with it.
Salaams, one and all…
Some important information here, and some important home truths (which are always welcome), al hamdu lillah.
As someone who grew up on a council estate in East London (kind of equivalent to a housing project I’d guess, but I’ve never been to ths US so I can’t be sure), a lot of what you say resonates with me. I’d also agree with the points that Yusuf makes above.
I guess that in some way, everyone has an internal ‘culture’ or a place where they feel they belong. This may or may not match what appears to be on the outside. For myself, respect is the important point.
One of the most influential songs in my own personal development was ‘Leg in the Sea of History’, by a UK band called Galliano. A racially mixed band, using a variety of styles (reggae, hip hop, jazz, funk, etc). The lyrics always struck a cord with me because in many ways they described my own vantage point:
Residing pale, within a dark culture.
I come with respec’, not as a vulture.
Been aware of another history.
I realise race’s definin’ me.
I believe in the spirit of man, woman.
I use this belief to help me overstand.
Skin is race, culture, ideology.
Difference in thought, small biology.
I should have mentioned the Style Council as another British band of the 1980s who fused styles from both white and Black culture. The keyboard player with Galliano, Mick Talbot, had been in the Style Council.
Salaams Yusuf. As you state some white artists produced 60s bands. But the artists who made the most money off of Rock n Roll were white: Elvis Presley, Beatles, etc. Many of those Black innovators were ripped off by the song writers, producers, and record companies that helped put the music out there. I am not saying that white musicians and singers are not talented. Many of my favorite artists are white. For instance, Tina Marie is an amazing songstress and her music always touches me. I also grew up with Hall and Oates, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and will never forget Michael McDonald’s tracks. The problem that I have is when you take over someone else’s cultural production as your own and forget its roots and loose respect for the communities that gave rise to the music. That would be like dancing Flamenco and spitting on Gypsies and denying that it came from Spain. Well, Flamenco has maintained its Spanish character, but something about Black Music seems to appeal to a lot of people but in order for them to digest it a lot of people want to divorce it from its culture and thereby cut off its cultural flavor. But other cultures seem to be able to maintain their own identity without being completely hijacked. I appreciate your comments Yusuf and and Abdur Rahman. At the same time, they seem to be a bit preachy: as if you are telling me to conform to your notion of racial harmony. But I think that it is important for members of the dominant group to come to terms with the grievances of minorities and subordinate groups (i.e. women, Black Americans, Black British, Asians, undocumented workers, the poor and working class). My point of view is not uncommon and many scholars in the African Diaspora have made strong critiques of the way that Black cultural production is commodified. In some ways, you should first listen to our grievances before having a knee-jerk reaction. Otherwise, you can sound quite defensive and in the end you still assert your white male privilege in defining Black cultural contributions.
“As someone who grew up on a council estate in East London (kind of equivalent to a housing project I’d guess, but I’ve never been to ths US so I can’t be sure), a lot of what you say resonates with me. I’d also agree with the points that Yusuf makes above.”
Blacks have grown up inside of dominant European cultures all over the Americas inclusive of the Caribbean and been forced to adopt many of your cultural standards. Yet, there is no confusion about our own identifying culture. So being the white the kid that felt close to what blacks did, doesn’t mean that you’ve got a leg to stand on when it comes to defining yourself within someone else’s culture. More so, the very truth of many black people feeling enmity due to others encroaching upon and claiming for their own what is fundamentally ours is proof of there being a great difference. Culture isn’t simply something that you grew up in; it’s not simply something that you imitate; it actually emanates from a people and black culture comes intrinsically and belongs to, without doubt or hesitation, black people no matter who tries to replicate it. Sure we can share, but historically whites’ interest in black innovation has only led to another way for them to make money. That can’t be disputed. And another point: soul music wouldn’t have been dealt any blow if there were no Hall and Oates and rap wouldn’t have crumbled if there were no Eminem. Hall and Oates, Justin Timberlake, Wild Orchid (bet nobody remembers them), Britney Spears ( that’s all Janet) are all liked by many but they did more for making white people feel included than they did for defining what they participated in. They weren’t innovative. Leontyne Price equals amazing and opened the doors for many to be able to participate in dominant culture, but opera wouldn’t have suffered without her and it wasn’t defined by her.
Being part of the dominant culture, no matter where you grew up, means that you have to approach the culture of minorities differently (you don’t have a right to because of where you grew up). Because, your culture by definition dominates and swallows what it comes in contact with. There is a problem ethically with white men selling us our own culture. That white men don’t think about that prior to making decisions that put them in charge of influencing or dictating our arts is further indicative of not knowing boundaries.
I will have to add that the dominant group often defines itself vis-a-vis the other. Eward Said points that out in “Orientalism.” But the problem is when the West or dominant group tries to define and circumscribe non-Western, colonized, or marginalized groups in society. Hip Hop would be a beautiful thing, with far more variety had it not been for the capitalists who market garbage to our own people. Legitimate artists are strangled by this system, likewise a community is deprived of the ability to fully define their cultural production as others swoop in to co-opt it for their own purposes. Hence, we have Clear Water Broadcasting and the Record Labels which exploit countless artists. Perhaps it is different in the UK, but in the US we Black Americans were forcibly migrated to the West. We have not had a lot of say in defining the dominant culture, but we have this influence in the culture as Americans have been picky and choosy in claiming certain things as their own. Then, the only things that people seem to understand about Black American specificity are deficits (exploitation, marginalization, and disfunctional communities) as opposed to our positive contributions and rich cultural heritage that reflects an vestiges of African culture and celebration of life despite adversity due to European domination.
Peace, one and all…
Dear Sheikha and Margari, thank you for your comments. Being made to think anew is one of life’s blessings. May Allah bless you both and all that you do.
I don’t think I was trying to define myself within another’s culture, rather I was just trying to tell my own story. The more I grow and reflect, the more I realise that the only truly authentic story I can tell is my own, and the only truly authentic perspective I can represent is my own.
I grew up, as I say, in London in a very racially mixed area. Al hamdu lillah. I think that this diversity was one of the most important factors in eventually becoming Muslim. I grew up listening to black music, in all its wide diversity; everything from funk to soul to hip hop to house and more. But, being English and white, I had my own cultural background. I didn’t grow up in black culture as such, because of my own background, but I shared my respect for it, my appreciation of it and my love of it. But, I was firmly aware of my own roots, so to speak.
Thus, when I refer to these lyrics, I’m not saying they are exactly my own words (which they are not), merely that their essence resonated with me (and still does). I’m not defining myself by another’s culture, merely celebrating the deep impact that black culture had on me as I was growing up. Al hamdu lillah in every condition.
I hope that neither of you think I was ‘preaching’ (something I hate). If that was what you thought, then I apologise as it was not my intent. It goes without saying (or perhaps not) – you have your own ideas on all things, not just racial harmony. I have mine. Great, no problem. I think the point I was trying to make was that beyond such differences we can offer our appreciation.
I apologise if I sounded defensive. That was not my intent. As for ‘white male privelege’, well I hope that all I was doing was offering an opinion, no more and no less.
Thank you both once again, for being made to think anew.
Apology totally accepted and I Understand your good will. I don’t want to sound harsh. But some of the statements you made could be used by someone who wanted to critique my analysis of the co-optation of African Diasporic cultural production. Like I stated, but not emphatically I think it is wonderful that it resonates with many people. Most Black people are happy that our music brings many people together. The main problem that I have is when people try to claim that it has no roots in the Black community or Black experience. The try to divorce it from the culture and point out the individuals who are not black who participated in it. I also want to emphasize that my goal is racial harmony. Allah clearly states in the Quran that he made us different tribes and nations so that we may get to know each other. There will always be exchanges and borrowings. It is important to recognize our differences and what we have to contribute to each other. Islam does not call for us to ignore our differences, instead we celebrate them. For instance, there are many things in Middle Eastern culture that I appreciate. I have learned Middle Eastern dance and I try to respect the traditions and styles of various cultures. I often talk about the North African girls who taught me to dance. But I was a bit disturbed by the women in the Belly Dancing class who co-opted it showed tons of skin all the while dancing to some Wiccan Goddess song.. I understand your intentions to emphasize racial harmony and you sound like you have an anti-racist agenday (which is awesome). But it is important to understand that even liberal whites can replicate racist paradigms without knowing. In undergrad I did a study on this, and I was suprised to see the results. I may have to defer you to some really amazing scholars who have worked on this area. But this dialogue is very important and uncomfortable. Believe me, since I was a child I have had to continually be pushed to think about issues because of my encounters with outspoken people from all ethnicities and classes.
There’s one other issue I think is being missed here, which is that much of the music Abdur-Rahman and I were talking about which borrowed from Black cultures wasn’t a conscious borrowing, much less some sort of musical carpetbagging a la the British (Loot) Museum, but simply a case of working-class kids making the music they wanted to make based on what they knew and what they liked. An educated person like myself might well be sensitive about ripping off another culture without paying dues (literally – like Elvis with Arthur Crudup’s song – or otherwise) and be able to spot instances of such behaviour, but if someone’s not been through university and read Franz Fanon but he’s into music and has a band, and writes a song partly based on what he’s heard his Afro-Carribean (or British of such origin) neighbours playing on their stereos, I don’t think you can accuse him of misappropriating someone else’s culture. You mentioned a whole list of disadvantaged groups earlier which included the poor and working-class, but I bet that a fair proportion of this music comes from that class (admittedly, they don’t stay poor and working-class for long if they’re successful in the music business). In the 1980s British industries were closing left, right and centre and three million – of all colours – were unemployed, and many of them were at least as despised by the governing classes under Thatcher as non-white immigrants had ever been.
“if someone’s not been through university and read Franz Fanon but he’s into music and has a band, and writes a song partly based on what he’s heard his Afro-Carribean (or British of such origin) neighbours playing on their stereos, I don’t think you can accuse him of misappropriating someone else’s culture.”
You can misappropriate it unintentionally. He may not be aware of the fact that the musical traditions that he is borrowing, adapting, and building upon had its roots in African heritage and the experience of being dislocated either by colonialism or forced migration (slavery). I am all for working-class solidarity, but what is common among working class whites is the denial of racism and race based inequality. That was one of the tensions among socialists at the Bandung conference. Working class whites are treated badly, but they are still not subject to institutionalized racism in the same way as Blacks. I have seen enough studies to show how Blacks are disproportionately incarcerated in comparison to whites, executed for capital offenses, excluded from opportunities based upon skin color to say that the experiences of working class and poor whites are not the same as working class and poor Blacks. Once I get caught up with my work, I can refer you to studies which complicate the notion that it is just a class thing.
Sadly familiar. As recorded eight years ago…
Making me squirm.
Salaams. A thought-provoking post.
My pet peeve: Preppy kids–including, yes, desi MSA boys–with hats backwards pimp-strutting their way across a leafy ivy league campus (e.g., Georgetown).
I’ve always been feriously irrated by ’em. I still shudder at the memory of the nauseating sight of “Great Gatsby”-style rich kids blasting NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” from shiny beamers in Boston during my high school days at the end of the 1980s. The hijacking of another culture was so blatant, and so absurd (I can forgive Pakistanis in the UK for imitating hiphop culture, but suburban kids who’ve never experienced poverty, much less racism, chanting “F*** the Police”??).
I’ve never struck a woman and don’t plan to, but if it ever happened it would probably be after a middle-aged white lady shrieked, “You go on girl!” to a Black colleague. It’s just not right.
Now, I will admit that I was a white boy who wore track suits and sneakers (either Addidas or Fila), but unlike so many I always realized that by doing so I was participating in another culture and I needed to know my place. Nor did I fake a pimp strut or try to sound “black”. I could pull it off decently enough, but I felt it disrespectful, like Marie Antoinette playing peasant.
I identified powerfully with hiphop for a mix of blue collar resentment at elitism of the Reagan Era, agreement with its political radicalism, and plain old estethic appreciation for its funk and power (who can listen to early BDP, Eric B & Rakim, or PE and not be blown away).
Those reasons are part of why I can’t stomach most of what’s out there. Caricatures of caricatures, if not Ministrel Show-style perpetuation of every vile steoreotype.
I miss the old days when people *really* kept it real and rapped about picking boogers (Biz Markie) or catching an STD from sleeping around (Kool Moe Dee). Aside from KRS One’s megalomaniacal pretensions, most of the early MCs rapped
about real life, or about good old fashioned revolution.
I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff out there today, but this old head (35) doesn’t have the patience to sit through all the junk to find it. As they say in engineering, the signal-to-noise ratio is just too low as far as I’m concerned. (Not that that’s a criticism of younger folks’ tastes. God, all the crap I bought and listened to.)
BTW, I’m aghast that you’d put JJFad in the same company as MC Lyte, the Roxanes, Miss Melody, etc. I didn’t follow their stuff closely and at this point all I can remember is their outfits (I was a teenage boy, after all), but my impression is that they were pretty, umm, “soft”. But maybe I’m wrong.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the other thing I miss: Feuds.
e.g., Roxane Shante/UTFO, LL Cool Jay/Kool Moe Dee (which I think KMD won, btw–LL just became a superstar), …
I have to note for the record that “feriously” above is a mangled attempt at FEROCIOUSLY. An anal thing to comment on, yes, but I’m not sure I could live with people thinking I could under any circumstances misspell FURIOUSLY as “feriously”. Call me a snob.
> Or Gwen Stephanie and the B-girl thing combined with her fetishization of Japanese women. Now that’s fricken creepy.
[Sorr[Sorry about that, I messed up the HTML by including [greater than] and [less than] charaters around your quote. (Feel free to delete the previous comment.)]
“Or Gwen Stephanie and the B-girl thing combined with her fetishization of Japanese women. Now that’s fricken creepy.”
It’s a new low, and one that’s offensive on multiple levels. She’s created this new orientalist seraglio image around images of a Japanese counterculture and with a new “master”–a white woman! There’s so much going on beneath the surface here.
Check out this great critique: